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Sphere factor: Inside the Globe of Death with Cirque Berserk!

Lucius Troupe in the Globe of Death. Photo: Piet-Hein Out Lucius Troupe in the Globe of Death. Photo: Piet-Hein Out
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The team behind Zippos Circus is again taking big-top excitement into the theatre and one of the acts making the transfer is the Globe of Death. The team behind, or inside, the motorcycling stunt speak to Heather Doole

Hearing the growl of a motorbike in a theatre gives the audience an unnerving thrill; maybe similar to the thrill an audience felt a century ago on hearing a lion’s roar from behind the canvas of a big top. And it is this emotion that Julius Green, creative director of Cirque Berserk!, wants to stir up for his crowds.

Cirque Berserk! describes itself as “real circus made for theatre”. It is the brainchild of Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton, the clown-turned-impresario behind Zippos Circus, aiming to bring the bombast of a big-top show into a traditional theatre.

“We’re pushing the limit of what can be achieved in a proscenium arch theatre,” Green says, “and a lot of acts are very effective because of that.”

The show, which has been touring theatre spaces for five years, consists of nearly two hours of fire spinning, knife throwing, tumbling, juggling, aerial work and clowning performed by acts selected from across the world, all of whom cut their teeth in a canvas venue.

Cirque Berserk! review at the Peacock Theatre, London – ‘thrilling’

Dominating the stage is the Globe of Death, a hollow metalwork sphere with a diameter of 4.4 metres, which hosts the Lucius Team’s motorbike act.

This act is one of the climaxes of the show. It caps off the first half with three dirt bikes circulating around the inside, seeming to pass perilously close (to the punter’s eye) to a woman standing in the centre. It tops that feat in the second half when the globe houses four bikes hitting speeds of up to 60mph in perfect formation.

There are no tracks or routes within the globe for the bikes to follow, no convenient dents or ledges for the riders to rest on. Instead it is a smooth metal surface with space for the audience to get a clear view. Unlike stage illusions, the magic here lies not in hiding the mechanism, but in laying it all bare.

The act works by using the centripetal force and the friction between the tyres and the globe. The riders experience g-forces of 3.5g to 4.5g, similar to being on a rollercoaster, as the torque keeps the bikes pinned to the sides. Unlike many pieces of theatre tech, this, in effect, is working with physics, rather than desperately trying to fight against it.

Heather inside the Globe of Death. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

Experiencing the globe of death

Watching the Lucius Team from the stalls is thrilling, but watching from the centre of the globe is another experience. The bikes bounce in and the sound is deafening as they rock in the bottom of the globe, waiting. They start to move and I have to fight all my instincts to duck or make a dash for it. They climb the sides of the globe and the rush of the air blows around my hair. Lucius’ eyes twinkle as he reaches down from above my head to tap my face. I can’t deny it – it’s absolutely exhilarating.

Although variations of globes of death or globes of steel have been around since the early 1900s, this show marks the first time it has been brought into a theatre. In circus, everyone sets up and maintains their own equipment and the Lucius Team is no different. This globe is built in Brazil to the exact specification of the act’s inventor Lucius Zafalon and it is constructed and tested by the team in each venue on the tour.

This globe is designed to work in each specific theatre. This means it is smaller and lighter than the one the Lucius Team would use in a circus, which is six metres wide. Despite this scaling down, the size still has the potential to present an issue.

As Green points out: “It’s not something you can store in the wings, so the first issue is where to put it when it’s not in use – and in the middle of the stage in front of everybody’s eyes is the best way.”

So it sits centre stage throughout, with Sean Cavanagh’s set designed to hide it in plain sight. Cavanagh has designed West End shows including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Tempest at the Wyndham’s Theatre.

Cirque Berserk. Photo: Piet-Hein Out
Cirque Berserk. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

To maximise playing space for the other performers it sits upstage until the Lucius Team’s act. The mechanism for moving it is an adaptation that Zafalon has designed and built himself – a hydraulic system that shifts it into position where it is secured on four heavy-duty screw feet.

As the structure weighs in at a beefy 2.5 tonnes, the point loading for each foot is more than half a tonne. For some theatres this means careful calculation of weight distribution – just one of the considerations that needs to be made when performing in a theatre. Another is that some of the venues have rakes, which alters the balance of the globe, meaning the team must alter its speed to maintain the important distances between riders.

Theatres are notoriously fire-adverse and many would usually baulk at the idea of petrol vehicles on stage – even before you add in the use of naked flame elsewhere in the show. Green takes pride in his relationships with licensing offices around the country and it is a testament to this, as well as the expertise of the Lucius Team, that the act is able to consistently play in theatres.

The Lucius Team. Photo: Piet-Hein Out
The Lucius Team. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

It’s a balancing act to ensure the rigorous safety does not compromise the execution of this live feat. A number of practical control measures are in place, including warming up the bikes outside, precisely measuring the fuel and calculating the length of displays to reduce the build-up of exhaust fumes.

The clearest element of danger is to the performers themselves as they hurl themselves around 360 degrees, flying close enough to the figure posed in the centre to touch her face. While the promotional video, along with the name of the act, emphasises the risk, Zafalon is conscious of their responsibility to the audience and to each other. For all that the act is marketed on danger, he’s aware of the ramifications of an accident.

Zafalon has been riding motorbikes since the age of nine and riding professionally for 32 years. He still leads his team on stage and into the globe each night. They ride matching TTR 125 Yamaha off-road bikes that they maintain themselves, as Zafalon is also a trained mechanic. These bikes are particularly suited to riding in the globe due to being lightweight.

This Lucius Team has ridden together for eight years. In that time its members have not had a single accident, which Zafalon smilingly refers to as “a pretty good record”. He attributes their lack of accidents to the level of trust they have in each other.

“We know each other, we 100% trust each other. We know everything that happens inside. If something goes wrong, we know. Everyone knows – we don’t need to talk.”

Their knowledge, skills and experience keep them safe. New riders learn first on a bicycle, only graduating to a motorbike after four months’ training. By the time they get on stage every rider knows the act inside out, allowing them to perform safely while leaving the audience with their hearts in their mouths.

With this fearlessness and skill, it feels as though these bikes and their riders have comfortably taken on the thrilling role that wild animals once brought.

Cirque Berserk! is on UK tour until September 9

Read more stories about circus

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